Recognizing Abilities for 15 Years

By Director Barbara Palmer

Fifteen years ago, the state of Florida began recognizing businesses that were truly making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. These groundbreaking employers embraced diversity by hiring individuals with disabilities to work alongside workers without disabilities.

October is Disability Employment Awareness Month in Florida. This is when our state and the nation focus on job opportunities for people with disabilities.

In today’s business world, individuals are expected to be judged on their job skills to be considered for employment.

The Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), Vocational Rehabilitation, Blind Services, and other organizations will gather virtually on October 14 to recognize six Florida employers who have shown their commitment to hiring people with disabilities. The Exceptional Employer Awards are another opportunity for the state to acknowledge businesses that are doing good.

APD serves people with developmental disabilities who are charting their own course. They are earning an income and contributing tax dollars to the state.

Blake Struss of Jacksonville is an important team member at Bruster's Real Ice Cream Atlantic Boulevard location, a popular stop for ice cream on the way to Jacksonville Beach. Over the past eight years, his duties have included cleaning windows, spraying down patio areas, setting up umbrellas, and making sure the waffle cone batter is just right.

Struss says these work skills have made a big difference in his life. “I love my job at Bruster's because it makes me more independent and working helps me be able to afford to live in my one-bedroom apartment.” He adds he would love to get married someday and have a family of his own.

Along with a delicious product, Struss says he has made some amazing friends at Bruster's. Owner Tom Devenny says his smile and work ethic are hard to beat. “Blake is the perfect person to work with and nobody can keep up with him.”

Struss works three days a week and Devenny says he never worries about the store when Struss is working.

“We are proud to have Blake in our Bruster's family and we thank him for making us a better business and better people,” Devenny said.

Most days, you can find Renee Cudworth between the orcas and the arctic marine animals. She works at SeaWorld’s Mango Joe’s Pizza restaurant in Orlando. Cudworth has spent the last 12 years working at Mango Joe’s surrounded on either side by majestic marine life.

The job is not all orcas and roller coasters, however; Cudworth is responsible for working the buffet line, cleaning tables, and washing dishes. She also recently passed SeaWorld’s food safety course, which covers a variety of culinary skills, enabling her to take on even more responsibilities. Cudworth’s manager Dee Lumpkin explains that since starting at Mango Joe’s over a decade ago, “Renee has grown to learn how each role in the unit operates. She consistently maintains an open line of communication and asks questions when she is unsure of anything.”

Cudworth is hard working, persistent, and determined. In fact, in 12 years, she has only called in sick to work one time. She is also a knowledgeable and empathetic advocate, not only for herself, but for others as well. And these qualities have made her an invaluable member of the Mango Joe’s team. As Lumpkin explains, “Renee is an honor to have in our area and we appreciate her.”

Nobody is prouder of Cudworth’s achievements than her mother, Veronica. “I’m proud of her attitude,” Veronica explains, “I’m very, very proud of that. Her initiative, her attitude, her faithfulness, if she has a bad day, she works through the bad day and goes back and has a good day.”

Every person wants to be given a chance. We would like more companies willing to offer jobs to those with unique abilities who are able to perform the work. APD and other programs are here to help your organization and the individual achieve success. We want your business to have dedicated and dependable employees like Blake and Renee.

Struss works three days a week and Devenny says he never worries about the store when Struss is working.

Cudworth is hard working, persistent, and determined.